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    Caseworkers to shift into backlogged DCF districts

    Employees from all over the state will be loaned to Miami-Dade and Orange counties to help stem the crisis there.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 19, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- State officials plan to skim the best and brightest child protection workers from across the state and send them to Miami-Dade and Orange counties, which account for nearly half of the 30,000 backlogged cases in the Department of Children and Families.

    The plan logged nearly an hour of contentious debate Thursday among budget committee lawmakers. They agreed that the $2-million "Challenge Campaign" program was a only quick fix but disagreed on whether it was enough to see the state through until next year's legislative session.

    "We need to fix the problem, and the solution before us is a rubber band," said state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.

    "The problem is, we have underpaid, overwhelmed people working in the system, and when something happens to their charge they get fired, their supervisor gets fired and their supervisor's supervisor gets fired," Latvala said.

    Two recent tragedies have touched off a firestorm in the Capitol, where lawmakers have declared a crisis in the state's child welfare system. A Miami girl under state care was missing for more than a year before anyone noticed, and a Polk County boy was killed the day his caseworker lied about having visited him.

    Under the plan lawmakers approved Thursday, six teams comprising six social workers and a supervisor will be loaned to Miami-Dade and Orange counties beginning Aug. 1. Officials expect the program to last 10 months.

    Child welfare officials said the caseworkers would be selected only from counties that could spare them, but said they hadn't decided which counties to select from. The state also is researching whether the five counties where the sheriff's office handles child protective services, including Pinellas and Pasco counties, can send workers.

    Several lawmakers on the budget committee said they worried that districts that donate workers could find themselves overwhelmed by their own caseloads.

    Rep. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, said she heard the same refrain from caseworkers everywhere she went: They carry far too many active cases to ensure the safety of the children.

    "They (donor districts) may not have a backlog," Lynn said. "That doesn't mean they are not in an emergency.".

    But other lawmakers likened the matter to one city's lending its firetrucks to another to help put out a four-alarm fire. Buying more firetrucks can wait until the next legislative session, but the community is on fire now.

    "It's a problem that needs to be addressed right away. If you think it's bad now, just you don't do anything" and see how bad it gets, said Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami. "The status quo is not acceptable."

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